It had to happen sooner or later. Traveling in Southeast Asia, we Americans sooner or later are faced with the ravages of what is called here "the American War." Today we had a sobering visit to a remarkable organization, part of the Laos Ministry of Health. It was the Center for Medical Rehabilitation (www.copelao.org) dedicated to war relief related to the endless destruction from cluster bombing that continues every day in the lives of the Laotian (and Vietnamese) people (probably the Cambodians too, we just don't know about that yet.) This organization works on several levels.
First they are working to clear the land mines and unexploded cluster bombs left in their country: an estimated 1/3 of the arable land here is unusable because the carpet bombing was so intense that it is literally unsafe to walk on the land to this day. Teams of dedicated workers are going slowly over the land with metal detectors and exploding the unexploded ordinance, but they can clear about 40 square acres a year, and there are millions to clear. Every week there are new casualties of the war, often children who pick up a bomb thinking its a toy, or men plowing a field who hit one with their plow, or someone bathing in a river. Nowhere is safe.
Laos was not involved in the war, but because the Viet Cong sometimes detoured through Laos to get between North and South, the US felt free to drop bombs on this innocent country for 12 years. More bombs were dropped here in Laos than on both sides of the entire conflict of World War II. The figure 580,000 separate bombing raids was given for this country. We were told that the US gave permission for bombers to dump excess bombs on Laos before returning to the base, after bombing raids into Vietnam that ended up with remaining weapons. The idea was that it was too dangerous for the planes to land when weaponized, so they just dumped everything on Laos. As a result, many people in the countryside here are living at marginal survival levels today, unable to farm, unable to move about, and many times supporting numerous community members who have been maimed by explosions.
To this day, 134 world nations have signed an agreement to destroy their cluster-style weaponry, but the US, to our shame, is not on the list. For me, one of the most memorable parts of the day was to gaze at a black and white world map which showed in red all the nations afflicted by land mines and unexploded ordinance. Besides Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, there were Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, and a wide red belt around the entirety of Central Africa. There was emotional neutrality on this map. No information was given about who bears responsibility for spreading this Red Carpet of misery around our planet, but standing in our shoes, I felt such grief.
Anyway, this organization, COPE, not only works to clear bombs, but they work with victims of explosions too, providing prosthetic devices, wheelchairs, and other means of support, to help those people who have so little. The exhibit itself was intensely moving and sobering, while never blaming or making a big deal about the US role. And yet we could not but feel horrified to know that this was our country who had meddled in their country and ruined life for generations to come, ruined whole landscapes and villages and rivers and forests, all of which are riddled with unexploded bombs. We were in tears walking through there and seeing the exhibits. We wanted to do something, help somehow, come home and inform people about what is happening here and what we never hear about, the daily fact of living in fear of the Vietnam War that never ends for the people of Southeast Asia, the challenge of surviving the peace..
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